House Bill 13 tries to make healthier N.C. schools but raises the hurdles for children getting in to schools

A new school health bill coming out of the General Assembly in Raleigh would require all new students in N.C. public schools to get a health assessment. Current law only requires kindergarten students to have the assessment, which includes a record of vaccinations.

On the surface, the goal of making sure all N.C. students are healthy is a civic good, hard to oppose. However, House Bill 13 fails to provide more funding to county health departments or schools to support parents new to North Carolina, navigating a confusing and overburdened health care system.

Imagine moving to North Carolina with three or four children and having to get appointments with a local doctor to fill out yet another form amid the stack of new-school paperwork and moving chores. Imagine that school nurses serve an average of 1,177 students each, which is 57 percent more students than the federal recommended ratio of 1 nurse per 750 students. Imagine that you have 30 days to comply before your kids are kicked out of school. Imagine that it can take several months to get appointments once you find a doctor or locate the county health department (PDF from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools). And imagine that you make too much money to qualify for Medicaid or the N.C. Health Choice program to help pay for the exams.

That’s not a thought exercise. That’s the reality in North Carolina. Counties like Mecklenburg have made a local funding commitment to more school nurses, but other counties don’t necessarily have the funds to supplement the funding they get from the state.

Private schools and home schools are exempt from the new requirements in the bill.

Without accompanying funding to support more certified school nurses or to pay for more support from county health departments, the new bill just raises the hurdles faced by families who want their children to get a sound basic education in North Carolina.

The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston (a border county). The bill, House Bill 13, has a fiscal note attached estimating any increased costs to the state, specifically public health departments. It says “any impact to local health departments would be negligible.” (PDF of the fiscal note). For counties like Mecklenburg with a large influx of newcomers, that estimate doesn’t represent reality.

The bill has passed out of the House Committee on K-12 Education. Other sponsors include Rep. Bert Jones, R-Caswell, a dentist; Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus; and Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Polk (another border county). You can follow the bill’s progress here.

As it stands, the bill is an unfunded mandate for county health departments, especially those with large influxes of newcomers. Those aren’t necessarily just big counties like Mecklenburg. The N.C. governor recently touted a new chicken processing plant for Robeson County (a border county), which had a child poverty rate of 47.8 percent in 2012. Some of those new chicken-plant workers will likely come from out of state, with children who will need help staying healthy and getting access to education. Increasing the hurdles they face for school without increasing the funding to help them get health care is wrong.

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